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Introduction to Sikhism
Introduction to Sikhism

Sikh Missionary Society: Publications: Introduction to Sikhism: Contents

Section V: Sacred Literature

  1. What is Gurbani?
  2. What do you know of Sri Guru Granth Sahib?
  3. What do you know of the Dasam Granth?
  4. What is the literary value of the poetry of the Gurus?
  5. Give the substance of the Japji.
  6. Give the substance of the Asa-di-var.
  7. Give the substance of Anand Sahib.
  8. Give the substance of the Sukhmani Sahib.

Q101. What is Gurbani?

The sacred literature of Sikhism is called Gurbani which means the Guru's word - A Song message - as enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. In Sikhism, the Guru Means 'The Word' and not the physical body. God revealed the bani through the Guru and it will ultimately lead one to its source. The bani is the Guru and the Guru is the bani. One who expounds or explains the bani cannot have the status of a Guru. He is a mere teacher or missionary. Any compositions other than those of the Gurus and those approved by them are unacceptable to Sikhs.

Some people make much of the apparently contradictory statements in Gurbani. The hymns have been written to suit different stages in spiritual development. For example, in one hymn, Guru Nanak says that with individual effort, it is possible to realize God; in another hymn he says that austerities and meditation are of no avail without God's grace. With understanding and patience, it is possible to reconcile the so-called contradictions. In this instance, prayer in the beginning is due to personal effort, but later on, it can be seen that this effort was itself induced or assited by God. Without His order - Hukam - it is impossible for man to do anything. Effort on its own only produces egoism and even frustration. Humility is essential for the winning of God's Grace.

The reading of Gurbani requires concentration, understanding and heart- searching. Lip-utterance on its own is of no avail. The devotee must meditate on the message of Gurbani. This alone can help him to rid his mind of evil thoughts and make it pure enough to receive the Name(holy Spirit). The true devotee drinks this nectar because it give him inner satisfaction and inner peace. The percolation of Gurbani into the inner consciousness is as fruitful as the seasonal rain to a ploughed field. Guru Nanak says, "Make a boat of the sacred Name then, with the oars of faith, cross the ocean of illusion."

According to Sikhism, Gurbani is the penacea for all human ills and sin. It is for the individual to find out which hymn or Salok appeals to him and is related to his spiritual need. If he feels comforted by the hymns of the Guru, he should realize that meditation is his spiritual need.

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Q102. What do you know of Sri Guru Granth Sahib?

Guru Arjan compiled the Adi Granth popularly known as the Granth which contain the hymns of the first five Gurus and some of the Bhagats of medieval India. He installed this scripture in the Har Mandar in 1604. This copy got into the hands of Dhirmal, the son of Guru Har Gobind. Subsequently some Sikhs forcibly obtained the copy from Dhirmal and presented it to Guru Tegh Bahadur. He returned it to Dhirmal. Guru Gobind Singh dictated the entire Granth to Bhai Mani Singh and incorporated the hymns of Guru Tegh Bahadur, in 1706 at Damdama Sahib. At the time of his death, Guru Gobind singh conferred permanant Gurudom on the Guru Granth Sahib(1708).

The Guru Granth Sahib contains 5894 hymns. The largest number of hymns (2216) were contributed by Guru Arjan. The 937 hymns of fifteen Bhagats and eleven Bhatts whose compositions tallied with the gospel of Sikhism were also included. Here the Hindu, the Muslim, the Brahmin, and the untouchable, meet on an equal footing. From the linguistic point of view, it is a treasury of old "Hindi dialects".

Music forms the basis of the classification of the hymns. They follow a definite metrical system. The total number of Ragas(Raga in Indian classical music means a pattern of melodic notes) is 31. Under each Raga, the hymns are arranged thus: Chaupadas, Ashtapadas, long poems, Chhands, Vars, and poems of Bhagats. The Guru Granth Sahib is written in the Gurmukhi script and contains 1430 pages.

Guru Arjan commenting on the nature of the Granth said: "In this dish are placed three things: Truth, Harmony and Wisdom. These are seasoned with the Name of God which is the basis of all; whoever eats it and relishes it, shall be saved." It is a work of divine inspiration. It is both metaphysical and ethical reality and imagination, mysticism and philosophy. According to Prof. Puran Singh, "it is a scripture for all nations. it is a lyric of divine love, on which all the people of the earth subsist of such glowing lyrical power. The Guru Granth Sahib is of one Song, one Idea and one Life." Guru Arjan wanted the book to be translated into foreign languages because it is the scripture of universal religion. It is a unique treasure, a noble heritage for all mankind.

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Q103. What do you know of the Dasam Granth?

Guru Gobind Singh was not only an exceptional warrior but also a creativegenius. His scholarship in Persian, Hindi and Punjabi enabled him to writeverses in different poetic forms. He patronized fifty-two poets at hiscourt. The most important of them were Bhai Nand Lal Goya and Sainapat.

The Dasam Granth, compiled by Bhai Mani Singh after Guru Gobind Singh's death, contains more than 1400 pages in Brij Bhasha, Persian and Punjabi. The contents are mythological, philosophical and autobiographical. The two main themes of the Guru's work - authentically ascribed to him - are in praise of the Almighty and to the power of the sword. The verses were meant to stir the people in his times with patriotic and martial fervour. The following compositions are definitely written by the tenth Guru.

The Jaap Sahib: This is a unique composition in a variety of metres, praising the characteristics and power of God.

Bachitra Natak: A wonderful drama, an intimate autobiography recounting the mission of the Guru.

Akal Ustat, Shabad Hazare, Tatees, Swayya: These hymns enshrine the praises of the Timeless One in telling phrases and striking similes. Here is an example:

"As waves beating on the shingle,
Go back and in the ocean mingle,
So, from God come all things under the sun,
And to God return, when their race is run."
Zafar-Nama: This poetic epistle in Persian was addressed to the Emperor Aurangzeb and throws light on the Guru's opposition to tyranny and fanaticism.

What impresses one in the Dasam Granth is the excellence of the poetic technique and the other choice of words and epithets. Guru Gobind Singh - even when the situation appeared desperate, after his leaving Anandpur - never at all doubted victory or his unflinching faith in God.

"With Thee I will in adversity dwell but
Without Thee, a life of ease is a life in hell."
The versatility of this saint-soldier in composing devotional verses showsthe richness of his mind, his spiritual attainment and heroic grandeur.

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Q104. What is the literary value of the poetry of the Gurus?

Apart from its mysticism and spiritual depth, the poetry of the Gurus throws light on their contemporary situation. It lays bare the corruption and degradation of the society of their time and stresses the need of social reform and economic uplift. Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh both recommended a just and humane administration, to the then rulers of India.

The hymns of the first five Gurus, the ninth and tenth Gurus, show an admirable use of the current figures of speech, apart from their metrical richness and sweetness. Imagery is used to simplify subtle thoughts and profound concepts. The images were taken from everyday life and common occurrence. The Gurus were keen lovers of nature and as such, have written glowing descriptions of panoramic beauty and the changes of season. Guru Nanak in Barah Mah (The Twelve Months), compares the monthly moods of nature to the inner conditions of man. The Arti is full of wonders of the skyscape:

"In the salver of the sky,
The Sun and Moon are lamps.
The luminous stars are the pearls."
(A.G. p.663)
Spiritual truths are conveyed through homely similes.
"Just as there is fragrance in the flower, and
Reflection in a mirror, so
Similarly God lives within us
Search for Him in your heart! "
(A.G. p. 684)
"The sun is the same, the seasons are many, as
Many are the garbs of the Creator", sayth Nanak
(A.G. p.12)
The Gurus used current proverbs and popular sayings to illustrate their fundamental ideas of spirituality:
"As is the dream of night, so is this world."
"As is the staff in the hand of a blind person,
So is, to us, the Name of God."
There is, however, no delibrate attempt to refine or embellish the language. Sublimity and idealism have been presented with such simplicity that even unlettered people can understand their import. The hymns satisfy a longing for perfection and spiritual attainment. The poetry of the Gurus is valuable for both its sublime content and literary excellence.

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Q105. Give the substance of the Japji.

The Japji contains the whole basis of the Sikh religion and philosophy. The theme - the evolution of spiritual life - is developed systematically.

As a first step, Guru Nanak defines God and sums up His attributes. The goal of human life is for a union with the Divine Being, often called salvation or Nirvana. This is achiveable through self-surrender and a submission to God's Hukam. God is manifest in His creation. Nature obeys His law; like-wise we too, must obey Divine law.

How can a devotee merge with Divinity? Guru Nanak suggests that in the early hours of the morning the devotee should meditate on "His Name" and praise His Greatness. The disciple must follow the Guru's word.

The first step is to listen for the Name. By careful listening, the devotee becomes free from sorrow and sin. The second step is true and firm belief in "The Name". Those who have firm faith in "The Name" not only free themselves from the cycle of birth and death but also liberate others. Creation is in the play of God. Some people are busy in good works, while others are busy in crime and sin. Action is followed by reaction. As a man sows, so shall he reap.

The sovereign remedy is the remembrance of "God's Name" (The invocation of the air of the "Holy Spirit"). Just as dirty clothes are cleaned by soap, in the same way, man's evil is washed away by "The Name". God is vast and so is His universe. No Religious leaders can ever fathom His greatness. He has created millions of worlds and stars. No one can visualize His infinity. He alone knows Himself. He guides and controls the universe and all things are under His law. The conquest of one's Ego under the control of the 'self', is the only way to merge the individual soul into the Universal soul.

There are five stages of spiritual life: Dharm Khand, Gian Khand, Saram Khand, Karam Khand and Sach Khand. To progress through these the disciple has to follow a strict discipline, namely to control the mind and body, fearlessness, steady perseverence and a constant remembrance of "The Name", in order to reach the goal. True devotees have radiant faces, beaming with Divine Light and they bring peace and happiness to countless other people - all who come in contact with them.

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Q106. Give the substance of the Asa-di-var.

Guru Nanak's Asa-di-var or the morning prayer, consists of Slokas and 24 Pauris. Guru Ramdas added 24 Chhands (Quatrains). A var or ode is a heroic measure, popular in the Punjab. This particular var is sung in the early morning in all Sikh Temples. Here Guru Nanak sings of the glory of God and "The Name". He details the process by which an ordinary man can become a perfect servant to God. Even so God's grace is essential, and one has to deserve it:
"God Himself shapes men as vessels, and brings them to perfection.
In some is put the milk of loving and kindness, others ever are set on the fire of passion.
Some lie down to sleep on cushions, others stand to watch over them.
God regenerates those on whom He looks with grace. (24) "
The hurdles on the path to divinity like the Ego, hypocrisy, evil thoughts and actions, are discussed and various remedies are suggested.

According to Prof. Teja Singh, The "Asa-di-var" resembles an ancient choral in Greek. There is a great similarity in the way both var and ode are sung. It may be noted that there are 22 vars in the Granth, out of which three, including Asa-di-var, are by Guru Nanak. Often Shabads (Hymns) are interspersed between Pauris and this provides for both a variation of musical score and changes of thought.

Krishna Chaitanya, an Indian musicologist writes about the effect of the chant of Asa-di-var as under:

"In musical impact it is like the plain chant of European Christianity. It is recitative which has taken wings, rather than an abstract arabesque of sound. In its musical texture, it is wholly different from plain chant. This is because plain chant comes early in the evolution of European music whereas the melodic pattern of the Asa-di-var is derived by the simplification of a mature classical tradition."
We understand the message and feel the melody at the same time. When the Asa-di-var is sung before dawn - Amrit Vela - it produces a feeling of inner repose and peace.

Gramophone records of the Asa-di-var are available in the market. The most popular is that of the late Surjan Singh.

(Personally I prefer Nirmal Singh, Hazuri Raagi [the editor])

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Q107 Give the substance of Anand Sahib.

The Anand Sahib - or "The Song of Bliss" - is the spiritual and musical masterpiece of Guru Amardas. Some biographers have tried to make it a historical piece by stating that it was composed in 1554, after the birth of his grand-son called Sidh-yogi, to whom he gave the new name of Anand. This story is improbable, because the composition contains no references to any event or the birth of any child. Its theme is of man's spiritual goal, namely the merger into the Divine Essence.

There is a development of thought in the Anand. The first stanzas state clearly that bliss can be obtained through the Guru. The Guru stands for the Revelation, the Shabad, or those utterances which include his teaching on the stages of the spiritual path. Are there no short cuts to the attainment of bliss? The Guru mentions the hurdles that stand in the way of the disciple. These are: human cleverness, family attachment, taboos, rituals, conformity to tradition and convention, the opportunism of leadership and the compromise with principles. Stanzas six to twenty all deal with these obstructions.

What then are sources of bliss? These are the true submission to the commands of the Guru, the performance of acts of charity and selfless service, the association with holy people and the rememberance of the Holy Name. Stanzas twenty-one to twenty five tell us about the God-oriented person - the Sunmukh - who is radically different from the egoistic worldly person - the Bemukh. The disciple follows in the foot-steps of the Guru and sings of the Lord's praise in the company of saints or holy congregation.

Stanzas twenty-six to thirty four deal with the temptations of Maya, these grip man from his birth. Attachment to his near and dear ones, immersion in the satisfaction of his desires and in meeting the demands of his relatives. How his thirst for such mundane things remains unquenched. The more he gets, the more he wants.

Stanzas thirty five to thirty nine deal specifically with the functions of the human body and its sense-organs. A body becomes blessed if it is devoted to God. That fulfils the purpose of man's coming into the world. The eyes are blessed if they see the Lord pervading the whole universe. The ears are meant to hear the Truth and the song of God's glory. If man dedicates his senses to the attainment of spiritual goals, God opens to him, the door to His treasures. He can then sing the "Song of Bliss" in the home of his own soul. He who remembers God is loved by Him. The last stanza, number forty, enumerates the benefits of Anand. It banishes all tension and sorrow. Those who sing it or listen to it with devotion, become purified and liberated. The Unstruck Music of Cosmic Melody is then recognized by them with great joy. Such noble souls may ultimately merge with the Lord.

The Anand has to be sung in the Ramkali Raga to make its full impact on the mind. The intellectual appreciation of these philosophical concepts is intensified by an aestheitic delight in its musical rendering. As the five kinds of musical hymns - Panch Shabad - mentioned, echo in one's memory, the vital truths and higher values of the Anand transport one to the mental realms of beauty and bliss.

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Q108 Give the substance of the Sukhmani Sahib.

The Sukhmani Sahib is the simplest and the most popular of all the Banis in the Guru Granth Sahib. Literally, "Sukhmani" means some thing which gives peace of mind or the touchstones for happiness. Guru Arjan's aim in writing the Sukhmani - The Psalm of Peace - was that the reader may feel composure of mind and a sense of inner bliss. Any person who is fed up with life or depressed by anxiety or otherwise afflicted will derive real consolation from it.

There is a gradual development of thought in the twenty-four cantos of the Sukhmani. In the first three cantos, Guru Arjan mentions the advantages of the practice "Nam", the remembrance of "The Name" Simran is the linking up with the divine, in a spirit of surrender, devotion and love. "The Name" helps in the normal business of life, and paves the way to spiritual progress. In cantos four to eleven, Guru Arjan gives his views on the God-man. Man's potentialities can be strengthened by divine grace. Man gets a vision of God through the company of holy men. The God-man is not the vaishnavite, or the salvationist or the touch-nothing mystic. He is one who fulfills the duties of a normal life: "The God-enlightened man lives like the lotus, pure amidst the impurities of the world". All the seekers, at one stage or another, seek God's help and turn to Him for strength and guidance. Cantos twelve to twenty mention the process by which God's grace can be merited. Self-conceit and the slander of saints bringh their own punishment. Only by self-surrender, can one earn God's favour. God is "The Truth" and the Guru guides the lives of the disciples in righteous living. The Guru also inspires the devotees with a love of "The Name".

The last four contos contain Guru Arjan's exposition of "The Name". The Name covers both the personal and impersonal aspect of God. God transcends and unifies all creation. The singing to "The Name" gives man spiritual solace and inner peace. In the end, the Guru enumerates the rewards which the reading of the Sukhmani Sahib may bring to the reader. They are beauty, humility, wisdom, equanimity and God-realization.

The Sukhmani Sahib is also regarded as the second expansion of "The Mul Mantra" (the basic Sikh belief), the first expansion being Japji Sahib and the third the entire Guru Granth Sahib.

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